Close enough inspection? Towing vessel rule released
August 18, 2011
Last week, the U.S. Coast Guard published its long-awaited towing vessel inspection program rule. Many are describing it as perhaps the most significant regulatory requirement since operators were required to be licensed.
The Coast Guard estimates that the new regulations will cost workboat operators $14 million to $18 million annually over the 10-year phase-in period, which at first glance doesn’t sound too bad if you spread it over the 5,200 tugs and towboats that this rule supposedly covers. Still, for the numerous small operators with small margins who populate our industry, anything that adds to the cost of doing business is felt.
The proposed rule has as its goal establishing new standards to ensure the safety of all aspects of towing vessel operations — from vessel equipment to human factors. The regulations also call for the use of Coast Guard-approved third parties to verify compliance.
There have been some major accidents in recent years involving towing vessels, and few now argue that a towing vessel inspection regime is not needed. As a journalist, I feel that one of the biggest benefits of the new regulations will be the elimination of the uninspected towing vessel label, which has been a public relations nightmare for the industry and its main lobbying group, the American Waterways Operators. Whenever a high-profile barge tow accident occurs (2008’s tanker/barge tow accident and oil spill on the Mississippi River is a “good” one), you can count on “uninspected” coming up in the discussion and news coverage.
Vessel operators recognize the need for the regulations. The lack of an inspection regime has allowed too many poorly maintained vessels to operate. While the regs won’t eliminate all of them, it is a step in the right direction.
But I have some concerns. The industry worked closely with the Coast Guard to develop the regulations, which raises the question of whether they will be tough enough. Also, how often do you hear about an industry being all for new government regulations that will cost them millions? I am also not convinced that it will adequately address what is arguably the biggest cause of casualties — action, or inaction, of crews who may be fatigued, distracted, poorly trained, etc.
And who will inspect these vessels? Coasties usually don’t stay in their billets long enough to become towing vessel experts. I’d like to see the “Coast Guard-approved” third parties that will be used to verify compliance include people who know their way around a tugboat. I’ll bet there are a bunch of retired towboaters and tug captains that can handle it. Maybe the Coast Guard can also hire some of the older guys that want to work but are being hassled at renewal time because of medical “problems.”